Charlie Hebdo: Try explaining to your children what happened

Freedom vs responsibility, bravery vs stupidity – these are difficult waters

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The Independent Online

We've reached the stage in our household where we hide front pages and cover up pictures of more slayings, trying to shield our 9 and 7 year olds.

What world are we bringing them into? What will the future be like for them, when in the present, a policeman begs for mercy and is shot dead in a Paris street?

We attempt to teach them that not all Muslims are like that, very few in fact. So small in number are they that Archie and Grace have nothing to fear. But then we wait for the condemnatory voice from that community, one they would also hear and identify with, and they do not come – or at least if they do they are not loud enough make a difference. 

They know that Daddy is a journalist and I upset people for a living. It’s what I do, I explain to them, I can’t be nice to everyone all the time. Occasionally they will hear us talking, such as the time when I attacked the Lycra-louts on cycles and received a volley of abuse. “You fat piece of lard, you look as though you’ve never got on a bike” was one of the choicest comments I received.

They’ve heard me say that if you can’t take it you should not dish it out. Now and then I’ve had writs. One occasion, they know about, I came close to being jailed for contempt of court. I was writing an article about something I cared about, I told them, and the judge in the court did not like what I was doing – it was all about people in charge of Britain sending weapons to a country in the Middle East even though the rest of the world had said we should not do it. They’d put on what’s called an arms embargo and our Prime Minister had decided to break it.

There’s been the odd letter in green ink, full of block capitals and exclamation marks. Once, someone left a threatening message on the home answerphone, even though I am ex-directory.

I tell them that what happened in Paris was different, that some bad men did something terrible. But how do we explain it to them?

Because, if I attempt to give them answers in a manner they understand, I find myself swimming in difficult waters. “The men did not like what the newspaper was saying about the prophet Mohamed. They were Muslims and they did not regard it as funny.”

“Should the paper have known they would be upset?”

“Yes, but we believe in free speech, in allowing people to speak their minds and say what they want – even if that means poking fun at someone else’s beliefs.”

“Yes, but if they knew it was going to annoy them, why did they do it?”

“Well, they did not think it would infuriate them so much that they would go to the newspaper offices and shoot the journalists. And their police bodyguard, and the policeman outside.”

“Wait a minute, if they had a bodyguard does that mean they’d been attacked before? Yes, it did. So why did they do it again, they must have known there was a chance the bad men would get them?”

“We think it important that newspapers can print whatever they wish. They publish jokes and cartoons about all sorts of religions, and nothing happens. Remember Charlie next door? He had a statue of Jesus that used to flash on and off, and make us laugh.”

“Yes, but just because we thought it was funny does not mean that others would. A vicar might say it was very rude.”

“He might, but there again, he would not go and get a gun and shoot Charlie, would he?”

“Yes, but sometimes Daddy, when I’m very angry [this is Archie, 9] I do things, then you tell me off for having, what’s that word you use, over-reacted. What you also say to me is that if you know you’re going to annoy somebody then don’t do it.”

“Archie’s right, Daddy [this is Grace, 7]. You’re always saying that and you shout at me if I hit Archie because he’s hit me.”

“But this is not the same. It’s about freedom of expression, which is very special to us – it’s what Mummy and Daddy really believe in.”

“Yes, but often when we say or do things, especially in the street, you will say we’re being very rude. What is the difference between that and what the newspaper did?”

“None.”

“So why do you tell us to stop?”

“Because it’s insulting and offensive, and will make the person really angry. Which is what happened with the Muslim men. The newspaper did not stop and they got very angry.”

“Yes, but nobody realised they would shoot people. But you said that before, you said when they made fun of Mohamed they people got annoyed and attacked them. It’s why you said they had a bodyguard.”

“That’s right I did.”

“So, why if the journalists knew they would get very angry and they’d done it before did they do it again? It does not make sense. The journalists must have been stupid.”

“They weren’t silly, they published the cartoon again because they weren’t going to be told what to do by people who did not like it.”

“Daddy…”

“What?”

“You’re always telling us not to do things because you don’t like it. And we don’t do it.”

“Daddy…”

“What?”

“The journalists were very stupid, weren’t they?”

“No, they weren’t stupid, they were extremely brave.”

“Is that like when you tell us to be brave, when we’re at the dentists, when we’re having injections?”

“Sort of.”

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